‘An intellectual EuroVision contest’

DLP Research Fellow Gillian Fletcher, based at the Institute for Human Security & Social Change at La Trobe University, reflects on taking part in the Australia Awards Welcome and Farewell event in Melbourne on Monday.

How can aid better support conflict-affected states (such as Afghanistan) to build locally-owned peace? How can we help to empower people and reduce poverty through programs such as the Australia Awards? How can we reduce stigma and empower voiceless people? How is DFAT making sure that civil society gets access to funding?

Question (597x335) (2)
Cate Elliot captured this question from participants at the New Colombo Plan table

These and many other questions were thrown at Institute representatives Chris Roche, Dennis Altman and Gillian Fletcher when they ran an interactive workshop with new and departing Australia Award and Colombo Plan awardees on Monday (June 29).

A total of 279 people attended the event, and the list of countries they came from is a long one: Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Fiji, Haiti, Indonesia,  Jamaica, Laos, Malawi, Mauritius, Mongolia, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Seychelles, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Vanuatu, Vietnam, and Zambia.

There was a similarly long list of study areas, ranging from agriculture and fisheries through economic growth, food security, regional stability and
water and sanitation.

As Dennis Altman joked: ‘It’s like an intellectual EuroVision contest’.

The Mural Hall at the Myer Building, Melbourne
The Mural Hall at the Myer Building, Melbourne

The workshop, part of a day-long ‘Welcome and Farewell to Victorian awardees’ program organised by DFAT, took place in the beautiful Myer Mural Hall in the Myer building. Tables were set with bouquets of Australian flowers. The Napier Waller murals glowed, the art deco light fittings shone. Awardees were dressed to the nines, with many wearing versions of national dress (special call out here to the women from Swaziland, who were resplendent in traditional shawls and headdresses).

It was a gorgeous setting, but the most impressive part of the day involved hearing from those present. In usual IHSSC way, we had unanimously agreed not to present PowerPoints but, rather, to get everyone else there to do the work for us. So after brief introductions in which we sketched out our personal and professional interests and histories in international development, we asked everyone to consider: ‘What is your burning question in relation to development and aid?’.

For 10 minutes people launched into intense debate on their points of interest and concern, before agreeing on one question per table to throw at our panel. Walking around the tables listening in on conversations, I was amazed at the depth and breadth of that debate. Sustainability was a buzzword. Climate change was an issue raised by many of the Pasifika people present. Other topics included corruption, employment, peace, security, and health. At one table, a group of Muslim women debated how to negotiate the tensions between issues of gender and sexuality and local culture and tradition. At another, scholars from Africa and Asia bonded over discussions on how to best promote South-to-South learning. At the table of New Colombo Plan awardees, concerns were raised over how to be culturally appropriate during placements and how to best engage in mutual learning.

Dennis, Chris and I had our work cut out in responding to the questions from the tables. We covered points including the sheer complexity of international development and aid; the inevitably partial nature of all responses; the importance of paying attention to processes (including processes of engagement, of evaluation, of critical thinking and learning); and the importance of paying attention to power and hierarchies of knowledge: whose knowledge counts, and who gets to decide?

Luckily, we are all also unafraid to say ‘there is no one answer’ and ‘we can probably learn more about that from you than you can from us’.

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